FOR THE LAST 18 months, criminal court judges in four Maryland jurisdictions--Baltimore City, Prince George's, Montgomery and Harford counties--have been participating in an experiment to establish more uniform and rational sentencing procedures. The need for such a program, long clear to judges and court-watchers, was emphasized at a recent meeting of the state judiciary in Baltimore. At that session, judges were presented with an actual pre-sentence report of a man convicted of armed robbery, and their recommended sentences ranged from probation to 20 years in prison. This kind of disparity is not only unjust but is also incomprehensible to the public. A committee of judges, with the help of an initial federal grant, set out to improve sentencing procedures, and devised this still experimental project.

Judges in each of the four jurisdictions were given a sentencing guidelines manual setting out a range of penalties for every crime. The guidelines were based on actual practice in each jurisdiction. Judges were then asked to impose sentences within these ranges or to explain why they chose not to do so. The project has succeeded in assisting judges in this most difficult task, and also in articulating a reason for each sentence and in promoting equity in sentencing while preserving some judicial discretion.

Here's how the guidelines system works: offenses are divided into seven categories according to the seriousness of the crime. First-degree murder and rape, for example, are offenses in category one; robbery with a deadly weapon is in category three, and passing a bad check for less than $300 is in category seven. Using a work sheet, the judge assigns a specific number of points according to the category of the crime. In the case of an offense against the person, points are added if a weapon was used, if the victim was injured or if the victim was under 10, over 60 or handicapped. The total of these points is the offense score. On the other side of the work sheet, an offender score is compiled that reflects the offender's prior record of convictions and parole or probation violations.

The judge then simply consults a chart to find an appropriate sentence. For example, a person convicted of armed robbery where the victim was 62 years old but uninjured would have eight points for the offense. If he was on probation at the time and had three prior convictions for serious crime, he would have four offender points. The combination of eight offense points and four offender points produces a recommended sentence of eight to 15 years. The use of these weighted factors to determine sentences provides both judges and the public with a rationale for the penalty and gives the offender an objective explanation for his sentence. Judges are free to sentence above or below the guidelines, but written explanations must be provided.

Maryland judges will decide this spring whether to adopt the sentence guidelines statewide, but this can only be done if the legislature approves a request for $160,000 to implement the program. It would be money well spent, not only because guidelines in fact make sentencing more objective and thus more equitable, but because they provide the public with a standard, an explanation for variations in penalties. If members of the legislature want to improve the administration of justice in the state and increase public understanding and support for the criminal justice system, they will authorize this expenditure and encourage the state- wide adoption of this system.